Adam Michnik on Putin, Obama, and the “dark Polish soul”

Adam Michnik on Putin, Obama, and the “dark Polish soul”

This morning I had the privilege of attending a briefing at the Woodrow Wilson Center with anti-communist icon Adam Michnik. Michnik, who is in town to receive the Ion Ratiu Democracy award, was a founding member of Poland’s Worker’s Defense Committe, which eventually became the trade union Solidarity. A historian by training, Michnik was one of the leading intellectuals of the anti-Communist movement in the 1980s, along with Czechoslovakia’s Vaclav Havel. (His 1985 “Letter From the Gdansk Prison” is a must-read and is available online.) Michnik founded and is still editor in chief of Poland’s largest daily newspaper, Gazeta Wyborcza

Michnik is a very entertaining speaker, largely because his politics can be hard to pin down. While he was a vocal supporter of the war in Iraq, he’s fiercely critical of the Bush administration in general and admires Barack Obama. While he describes contemporary Russia as a “country of sick imperialism,” he also considers himself a “true anti-Soviet Russophile.” He boasts of the achievements of Polish democracy of the last 20 yeras, but also derides President Lech Kaczynski and his identical twin, former Prime Minister Jaroslaw Kaczynsky, as “Lili-Putins”. This is a big insult from Michnik, who believes “Putinism” and “Berlusconiism” are the great “diseases of humanity.”

I asked Michnik if he though the movement he helped lead against communism was still a useful model for political organizing in today’s world, where the difference between democracy and dictatorship is not always so well defined:

Of course there is something going wrong with democracy today all around the world. The only positive case for democracy these days is the election of Barack Obama. It’s not a coincidence that in Poland the right writes about how Obama is a communist. Obama brings in fresh air into the bureaucracy of democratic countries. The reason Obama won was because there was a huge mobilization of the youth. In Poland the Kaczynski brothers lost because of a huge mobilization of the youth.

Of course, if we want to have democracy you want to have active democrats. You cannot have democracy without democrats. You cannot have democrats without active members of a society. At some point you have to say to yourself, the future of the world depends on me. It’s not megalomania. It’s a condition to want to change the world. The Russian problem is not Putin. It is the society that supports Putin.

Not that Michnik doesn’t have his complaints about the U.S., and the Obama adminsitration in particular:

In my country we had an unhealthy attitude toward cooperation with the United States. Polish people are probably the most pro-American in all of Europe. We have a myth of America, that America loves Poland and will do everything on Poland’s behalf. We believe that we can be equal partner to America on the same level to Israel is the Middle East. Of course it’s nonsense. Because of this we have enormous stress. We are everywhere where the American army fights — Afghanistan, Iraq — and thankful America doesn’t even remove the visas for Polish people to come to America!

And of course the last really awkward thing that happened was the chane of opinion on the anti-missile shield in Poland. Obama calls our Prime Minister at 1 a.m. Was there anyone in his cabinet that could have told him that it’s six hours later in Europe? It’s not secret knowledge! …

So in Poland we all have to learn the rules of American politics. We have to leave love on the side and go for reason. The best marriages are made on reason. 

Michnik remains optimistic that Russia will eventually democratize, noting the unprecedented access to books and ideas that Russians enjoy today. He also doesn’t see the condition of democracy in Russia today as particularly unusual:

We see this tendency in every post-Communist country. You can’t tell this to Russians though…. It’s the great Russian megalomania. They think, “we have everything the worst.” … They say, “no one else had Dostoyevsky. No one else can understand the secrets of a dark Russian soul.” I tell them I can understand because the Polish soul is just as dark.